For franchise quarterbacks like Matthew Stafford, breakups with teams are hard to do

ByMichael Rothstein ESPN logo
Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Joe Namath went to dinner with Leon Hess and his wife early in 1977. They'd been together a dozen years, and Namath, the New York Jets' Super Bowl-winning quarterback, needed to have a talk with the owner he cared about so deeply.

It was a tough conversation, one Namath didn't necessarily want to have but had to. The Jets were in the midst of a transition with a new coach -- Walt Michaels was replacing Lou Holtz. New York had drafted a young quarterback, Richard Todd, and Todd needed reps. Michaels wanted to play him.

Namath knew the team would take a few years to rebuild, and it just seemed like it was time for a break. Tears were shed, Namath said, by quarterback and owner.

Everyone understood it was time for a player-franchise divorce.

"Had Lou Holtz stayed with his staff another year, I might have stayed with the Jets," Namath said. "Whenever he left, I knew, I just felt like it was a better move for everyone involved if I got out of the way.

"When I say for everyone involved, coaching staff especially. I knew Richard needed to work, wanted to work and the right thing would be for me to sit because that team that year wasn't going to go anywhere. They were going to try and win games, and they did, the next couple years they improved. But it was tough."

When the Jets waived Namath, whose legs were already beat up, he signed with the Los Angeles Rams.

These were different times and Matthew Stafford is a different quarterback from Namath, even though they both were in their mid-30s -- Stafford 33, Namath 34 -- when the decision to move on was made. It's hard for any quarterback who becomes the face of a franchise for more than a decade to move to a new team, which Stafford will do in March when his trade from Detroit to the Rams is finalized.

Rare is the quarterback who plays his entire career with one team. Tom Brady didn't do it. Neither did Peyton Manning, Namath or countless others who were pivotal to their franchises. It's the harsh reality of sports, figuring out the time to move on -- whether it's the decision of the quarterback, the franchise or a mutual understanding.

Some quarterbacks see the end coming in advance. Others don't truly know until the end of the year. In some cases, it comes abruptly midseason. And when the quarterback -- or those close to the quarterback -- can recognize it, it makes that last season in a place that has become home a little bit different.

Stafford, in his only public comments since the trade, told the Detroit Free Press he and his wife, Kelly, started a conversation about possibly having to move before the 2020 season. If things went poorly, Stafford knew the Lions were going to head into a massive rebuild.

Like Namath, he knew a rebuild wasn't the best situation for him -- or the franchise -- at that stage of his career.

"Anytime you switch GMs and a head coach, you know that they're going to want to bring their own people in, and that's going to take time," Stafford told the Free Press. "And I, frankly, didn't feel like I was the appropriate person to oversee that time."

Which likely means sometime around Thanksgiving -- whether it was before Detroit fired general manager Bob Quinn and head coach Matt Patricia or after -- Stafford had to have an inkling his time in Detroit would end.

It would better explain his insistence on playing through a multitude of injuries the final month of the 2020 season. Perhaps he knew it was time.

"I did not know in my last year that it was my last year necessarily," said Matt Hasselbeck, who played 10 years in Seattle. "It kind of took me by surprise. But it's only because all throughout the year I was being told that we're happy with you and building something with you, but at the same time I wasn't like blindsided and I understood it completely because, hey, a new regime means bringing in their people, and I'm not offended by that at all."

Hasselbeck is thankful for what others around him did during his last Seattle season in 2010. The Seahawks made the playoffs and played New Orleans at home. The legendary "Beast Quake" game.

After it was over and Seattle won, Hasselbeck had the ball in his hands. One of his teammates' wives went to a police officer and asked to bring his kids on the field -- something that hadn't happened before.

"I'm there, got the game ball, getting ready to shake hands, do interviews, all that stuff. And all of a sudden my three kids show up," Hasselbeck said. "Right there. My youngest is like 4 or 5. And I'm like, 'Uhh, OK.' So I put my son on my shoulders. I give the ball, which is the Beast Quake ball, give that to my middle daughter and I'm walking off the field with my kids.

"There's these awesome pictures, and I'm staring at them now, and they were on the cover of the paper. That was my last game in Seattle and I had no idea."

Stafford might have sensed it, too. The Lions had him wired for sound in the season finale. Throughout the video the team posted, from his embraces with Matt Prater,Marvin Jonesand Darrell Bevell, it felt as if maybe Stafford knew this was the end, too.

Just because Stafford went to the Lions and suggested a split doesn't make it less difficult. He went from a 21-year-old No. 1 pick to a married father of four during his dozen years in Detroit. Even if the intent is never to stay in a place for the rest of your life, after a decade you inevitably grow some roots.

There's a life there.

"You're with one franchise. You're doing one job," said former Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who spent all 16 years of his career in New York before retiring after the 2019 season. "And you'll change teammates some, you'll change coaches, but a lot of the trainers, the equipment staff, the media, the people in the PR, those people don't change.

"Those people become like your family ,and that's kind of who you grew up being around. And when that comes to an end, it's tough."

The COVID-19 pandemic kept Manning away from the facility more than he might have otherwise been, but he knew it was time to go. And that feeling of loss and pain isn't singular.

"It was devastating to leave," Hasselbeck said. "Everything about it was hard. You give everything."

Their situations were different. Unlike Stafford, neither Hasselbeck nor Manning asked to leave. It was clear their times were concluding and the choice would not be completely theirs to make. It might not have been totally Stafford's either, but he made it clear he wanted to move on.

He told the Free Press that he was disappointed not to have won a championship in Detroit and that his initial intent was never to play elsewhere. He said he didn't want anyone to think he was giving up on Detroit, because "I gave it everything I possibly had here."

Which echoes the feelings of Namath, who, like Stafford, went to Los Angeles and had more of a mutual agreement to break up instead of the one-sided conclusion so often seen in pro sports.

"The toughest part, I didn't want to leave New York," Namath said. "I didn't want to leave my friendship with so many familiar people that I had been around for 12 straight years and change. I didn't want to leave Mr. and Mrs. Hess. They were wonderful people, really, the whole family.

"It was all tough."

Equally hard is Stafford's new reality. He's excited about the new opportunity in Los Angeles and the chance to play potentially meaningful games late in seasons.

But like anyone going into a new situation, they don't know what they don't know, whether he realizes it or not.

"It's strange. Not only were you somewhere, it was who you were for a long time, for 10 years," said Ken O'Brien, the Jets' quarterback from 1984 to 1992 before going to Philadelphia. "You look forward to going there all the time. You just fit in. You're part of the whole Jets deal, and then you go somewhere else, and no matter where you go, everything is totally different."

Maybe that energizes Stafford, who will have more overall talent around him with the Rams than in most of his years in Detroit. Football is still football. And it could be the way it was for Hasselbeck, who said the challenge of taking what he learned in Seattle and applying it to Tennessee "was refreshing in a way, too." But Hasselbeck also learned to appreciate things he had in Seattle -- nutrition, for instance -- that wasn't exactly the same in Tennessee.

After his first year with the Titans, he said he owed a handful of Seahawks employees calls because it was only then he realized their importance to helping his success and Seattle's success.

Hasselbeck said one of the trickiest things was his family's transition. His kids, for instance, loved Blitz, the Seattle mascot. When they arrived in Tennessee, they still loved Blitz more than T-Rac, Tennessee's mascot. Hasselbeck had to explain that although they had ties in Seattle, Tennessee was the team to root for now.

"It's like, no, no, no, this is our new team," Hasselbeck said. "It was like giving up our family dog and being like, 'This is our dog now. You don't like that dog anymore.' It's like, 'What are you talking about, Dad? That's our dog.'

"It was hard. Definitely hard."

But that's all part of what happens when your world shifts and you uproot from one life to another. It's life. It's change. And for the Staffords -- and for new Detroit quarterback Jared Goff-- it's the first time they are about to really experience it.

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